5G and Drones: Wings in Progress

What new intersections or flyovers are shaping up as drones enter the connectivity city? Let’s take an aerial view and find out.

VoicenData Bureau
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SatixFy Technology Enables First 5G link through a LEO constellation

What new intersections or flyovers are shaping up as drone technology enters the connectivity city? Let’s take an aerial view and find out.


By Voice&Data Team

The best technology is developed not by white coats but by military uniforms. History is proof that when humanity is on the brink of survival, the pressure valve releases exponential ideas and truly-disruptive solutions. Even if an invention is present beforehand, testing it at scale and with real-world scenarios in a military setting makes it highly amenable for use. We have seen it with flu vaccines for soldiers in the US Army. We have seen it when computers were tried to do calculations for ballistics trajectories. We saw it with the first practical radar system.

Every war unlocks many innovations and instruments that were alien to mankind before. Would the big battle against Covid and the current geopolitical skirmish pave the way for a revolution in drone technology too? And if so, would 5G be the weapon that drones need to win this game?


Why does 5G help Drones? And Vice Versa.

Bill Ray, VP Analyst, Emerging Technologies and Trends, Gartner opines that while the two technologies can be used effectively together, we do not expect to see 5G having a significant impact on drone use with the next five years. “Having said that - there are two aspects where 5G may have an impact on drone operations, the first being support for Beyond Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS) operations, while the second is remote command and control.”

The first application, as he explains, relates to how drones will be licensed for use BVLOS. “This mode of operation is still illegal in most countries (to fly a drone you have to have a licensed pilot within sight of it) but that will change over the next two to three years. BVLOS operations will be legal, but the drones will have to maintain a constant connection to the internet. This connection will be used to report location, speed, altitude, and orientation, with regular updates (likely to be every 30 seconds in urban areas, every two minutes when rural). Various technologies will be used to maintain a connection with the drone, including cellular networks (both 4G and 5G). We also expect to see LEO satellites used in some instances, along with Wi-Fi and other point-to-point technologies.”

What Goes Inside a Drone

Is a cellular data network a robust enough connectivity option to maintain drone communication beyond the visual line of sight? Or is satellite communication (SATCOM) still the only viable option for autonomous, low-altitude drones that operate at or below 400 feet? Let’s first lay two misconceptions to rest. First- Cellular coverage lacks availability at altitudes greater than 400 feet. And second-SATCOM is the only alternative for drones to go beyond the visual line of sight.

As drones fly higher, the visibility of cell towers gets better and that gives higher throughput and connectivity at hundreds of feet in the air. We know that SATCOM offers high-bandwidth connectivity for drones from Low Earth Orbit (LEO), Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), and Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) satellites, but the industry is evolving to more alternatives for flying low-altitude drones beyond the line of sight.


Now thanks to 4G LTE and 5G, we can count on wide-area, high-speed, secure wireless network coverage available in an almost omnipresent way. That should make 5G a strong catalyst for wide-scale drone deployment. More so, as 5G also clears the way for A.I.-enabled drones for reporting real-time data and conducting mission-critical applications.

It is notable that cellular networks, including 5G, provide very little coverage above 300 meters, as the antennas are orientated downwards to provide coverage at ground level, adds Ray. “Therefore, drones flying above this altitude will be obliged to use an alternative method of connectivity.

As per Ericsson, currently, drones are predominantly reliant on Wi-Fi and are effective for certain needs in ports, mines, agriculture, airports, utilities, and inshore and offshore drilling. But once drones make the move to 5G, they can ascend the potential for improved efficiencies, visibility, and safety – according to many experts.


What 5G may help in the case of drones is a spectrum of three areas. One is the ability to automate a drone. Then comes the ability to equip it with real-time analytics and video-based navigation. Next is the aspect of better accuracy and lesser interruptions compared to Wi-Fi 5G drones, hence, could easily be one of the hottest technologies of 2021. In November 2020, we saw Vodafone and Ericsson testing sky corridors for 5G drones at Vodafone’s 5G Mobility Lab in Aldenhoven, Germany.

Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. has also unraveled the Qualcomm Flight RB5 5G Platform, claimed as the world’s first drone platform and reference design to offer both 5G and AI capabilities. Meanwhile, Vodafone and Sapcorda, a global navigation company, have also done a pilot for new precision positioning technology to remotely track a vehicle within just 10 centimeters of its location. BT, with partners like Altitude Angel, has been chosen by UK Research and Innovation to deliver Project XCelerate. An Irish start-up Manna had collaborated with Cubic Telecom for flying delivery 5G-connected delivery drones in Ireland and England. In 2020, BT also announced the UK’s first commercial drone corridor, for delivering 5G-use cases for drone technology.


Not a Smooth Runway Yet

There are many factors to be ironed out before drones can take off to their best levels possible. Apart from power efficiency and usage issues, there are many other non-technical challenges in the air right now.

A critical limitation on the use of drones remains the legislative requirement that the pilot is able to see the drone at all times, as Ray reckons when he looks at the key challenges surrounding this new airspace. “This prevents long-distance flights, as well as inspections that involve going behind a building or other obstacle. Regulators around the world are being pressured to permit flying Beyond-Visual-Line-Of-Sight (BVLOS) and in some countries (such as the UK, the US, and China) such flights are currently being trialed. In May 2021 the Indian government has permitted 20 groups to start testing BVLOS drone operations, having received applications from 34.”


He argues that BVLOS regulation will come with a requirement for every BVLOS drone to be registered with a national drone-traffic control body. “So, in most countries, a drone-traffic-control network will be established in the next three years, often run by a consortium of mobile network operators. Mobile network operators are keen to provide both the connectivity and the necessary management services. Vodafone and Verizon have been peculiarly active, though, NTT Data is also a significant player. The FAA ruling on RemoteID has pushed BVLOS sight to the next round of rulemaking, and specifically “allowing the UAS industry additional time to continue developing the network-based UTM ecosystem.”

Pavil Naiya, Senior Analyst, Counterpoint Research observes that a majority of use-cases of drones are not clear in India except for IoT-based ones. “There is lack of law enforcement clarity. Initially, drones would be driven by technology enhancement reasons but mass adoption would take one or two years. However, with concrete use-cases, things can change into positive and faster traction.”

Ray also expands on the power challenge. Power remains a significant limitation, as he reasons. “Energy storage technologies such as copper-foam and solid-state lithium-ion batteries will improve things, but both are at least five years from common availability. We do see some drones using fuel cells, but more likely (for lightweight products) will be supercapacitors, which offer extremely fast charging time (reaching full charge within seconds) rather than extending life.”

5G can be just the right nudge that drones need to glide smoothly and higher into a future firmament. But that’s a war that needs a lot of battles to be won first – like power efficiency, AI integration, data regulations, safety standards, and an interoperable ecosystem.

Battles that would be fought not in a field but in labs and corporate war-rooms.

Source: Report from CB Insights

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